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The Nut Family

(by Patricia Fieldsteel)

Great-Grandma Fannie gave lessons on how to properly fart when out strolling with others: “When one needs to pass wind, one must simply run ahead, let go, and then wait for them to catch up.” A family saying was that Mae, Fannie’s twin, a grande dame and patron of the arts in Boston, got all the brains, and Fannie got none.

In the late 1920s, widowed Fannie left her home in Brookline and moved with baby sister Dora, another contender in the intelligence-quotient deficiency department, to the new and luxurious neo-Renaissance-style Hotel Alden on Manhattan’s Central Park West. They shared a large apartment at the end of a plushly carpeted corridor. Their squabbling could be heard the moment the elevator’s door was opened by a uniformed, white-gloved operator. Since neither sister could cook, they took their meals in the hotel’s elegant restaurant or had them catered and sent up. Their apartment contained a small kitchenette, and I suppose a housekeeper did simple cooking.

(the old Hotel Alden; photo: StreetEasy)

As a child, I dreaded visits to the Alden, either with my maternal grandmother, Nana (Fannie’s elder daughter), or less frequently with my mother and younger brothers. We would greet Fannie and Dora in their apartment and then go downstairs for something to eat. Every old person present would feel obligated to fuss and pinch my cheeks with their bony fingers. The part of the visit that held my fascination was a small shadow-boxed hand-colored print in their living room titled “The Nut Family.” The Nut Family was a large one, and they sat stiffly at a long, rectangular dining table wearing formal late-19th-century attire. Each family member had a different nut with a painted face and fake hair for a head. I could never get enough of The Nut Family, perhaps already showing an underlying comprehension of my own family tree of fruits.

When I was in my late teens, my mother invited the surviving family members, including my father’s widowed mother, for Christmas dinner. She spent weeks preparing the meal, the purpose of which was to show off her recently acquired abilities in the kitchen, thanks to cooking-school lessons. Fannie had become seriously befuddled. She was placed in the wing chair next to the living room bow window and Christmas tree while we had hors d’oeuvres, including a crock of foie gras with truffles sent as a gift from friends in Paris. Great Grandma Ray, imposing mother of my late maternal grandfather, strategically positioned herself in front of the crock. Senile she was not. My mother had decided to buy our Christmas tree late Christmas Eve when she figured, incorrectly, that prices would be reduced. All that remained were malformed and spindly. The tree toppled over—ornaments, lights and all—on top of Fannie, who kept mumbling, “God didn’t mean for Jews to have Christmas trees.” While the rest of us tried to extricate Fannie from the tree, Ray shoveled in half the foie gras.

Both Fannie and Mae died on the same day, each at close to midnight, though in different years. When the time came to dismantle Fannie’s apartment, Nana and her younger sister, Fannie’s daughters, began the long task. The first day, my mother showed up uninvited, always quick to help herself to the spoils of the dead, even though in life she’d shown little interest in her grandmother Fannie.

Nana had asked if there was anything I wanted. There was: “The Nut Family.” She understood. My mother claimed it disintegrated when she removed it from the wall. She’d dumped it, but as recompense, she gave me Fannie’s cast-iron skillet, a curious choice for a daughter who was anorexic at the time.

I brought the skillet with me when I moved to Provence, France. It hung from a ceiling beam in my kitchen. One day it crashed to the floor and the handle broke off. I mourned Fannie’s legacy and purchased a new pan, which I use often. And I still think of Fannie every time.


Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002. Her previous stories for Eat, Darling, Eat include And Yet..., Stay-A-Bed Stew and Snapper Blues, Her Ladyship, More Is Better, and Where's the Beef?

Cast-iron Skillet Chicken

My favorite feast in a frying pan is one inspired by Melissa Clark of The New York Times. It’s easy, versatile, and beyond delicious. The ingredients are simple and must be high quality. Little work is required on the part of the cook—the cast-iron does it all for you.

4 - 5 lb. whole organic, free-range chicken

sea or kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

5 sprigs flat-leaf parsley

4 lemons, quartered, pits removed

optional: small onion, peeled and cut in half

6 large garlic cloves, halved and smashed

6 large shallots, halved

bunch of spring onions or scallions, cleaned, green separated from white

extra-virgin, first cold-pressed olive oil

10 small potatoes, such as fingerling, ratte, or grenaille

1 T. capers

optional: splash of Madeira or sherry and pat of sweet butter

Preheat oven to 450 F. and place cast-iron skillet inside for one hour.

Pat chicken dry with paper towels, and sprinkle liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper inside and out.

Place chicken on a cutting board and separate the legs and thighs from the bird with a knife.

Splay them open until they fall flat and you can feel the joints separate with a pop.

Place sprigs of parsley and lemon halves inside the cavity, along with optional onion.

Place chicken, breast-side up, in hot pan.

Press legs down to rest flat.

Drizzle olive oil lightly over chicken and roast for 30 minutes.

Toss garlic, shallots, potatoes, whites of scallions, and capers into the skillet.

Stir to coat with pan juice.

Roast for 5 minutes and stir again.

Continue cooking until potatoes and shallots are tender and chicken is no longer pink, 5 - 15 minutes more with a total cooking time of 40 - 50 minutes.

Remove chicken from oven and stir scallion greens into the pan until wilted.

Let chicken rest for 5 minutes, then serve with the pan juices and everything else, with juice from the remaining lemon wedges, if desired.

At the last minute, a pat of sweet butter and a splash of Madeira or sherry can add an extra oomph.

Raw Cranberry-Orange Relish

Even though I live in France, I still have an American fondness for cranberries with poultry. This recipe takes under ten minutes and will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed jar for over a week. In keeping with the overall theme, many people add chopped walnuts or pecans. And yes, loathe as I am to admit, the recipe comes from my mother.

12 oz. fresh cranberries

2 oranges, quartered

1/4 c. sugar

optional: Cointreau or Grand Marnier

In food processor with steel blade, combine half the cranberries along with one of the oranges and 1/4 c. sugar, and process until smooth.

Pour into bowl, and repeat processing with remaining cranberries and orange.

Adjust sugar according to taste, adding optional liqueur.


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